Study links fevers during pregnancy to autism

A study published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry highlights a new danger to babies when their mothers develop a fever during pregnancy.

Medical researchers have focused significant efforts on the relation of fevers to birth defects and other medical conditions, and have found that maternal fevers during pregnancy are a major concern.

The relationship between fevers and autism

In the Molecular Psychiatry study, a Columbia University research team concluded that when a mother has a fever during pregnancy there is an increased risk that the baby will be diagnosed with autism. This contributes to an evolving general understanding in the medical and scientific community that autism may start developing before birth.

“Autism” is a catch-all phrase referring to a broad swath of symptoms on the autism spectrum. The autism spectrum ranges from profound mental retardation, inability to communicate, and fixation on repetitive tasks to mild Asperger's syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that around one in 68 children in America have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Boys are 4.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls.

According to the study, the more often that a mother has fevers during pregnancy, the higher the risk for her baby.  In addition, the second trimester poses the most danger—the researchers discovered a 40% higher risk of autism in babies whose mothers had a fever during the second trimester.

The exact way that maternal fevers increase the odds of autism in babies is unknown at this time, but is likely related to the mother’s immune response to a bacterial or viral infection. The research team believes that the likely culprit is the inflammatory changes that cause a release of cytokines into the mother’s bloodstream. Cytokines can cross the maternal-placenta barrier and then travel to the baby’s developing brain, where they can cause harm.

Other dangers posed by fevers during pregnancy

This new study adds to the growing body of research showing that fevers during pregnancy can cause a number of medical problems in babies.

First, researchers have found strong evidence that maternal fevers during the first trimester cause a 1.5 to 3 times increase of risk for neural tube defects, congenital heart defects, and oral clefts in babies.

Second, there are serious risks when a mother contracts a virus during pregnancy. If a pregnant mother catches a virus like Zika, rubella, or cytomegalovirus, it can cause extensive birth defects in the baby.

Finally, getting the flu (influenza) during pregnancy is also known to cause preterm labor and cause hospitalization. Other studies have shown that when an expectant mom gets the flu, it doubles the risk of the baby developing autism. These are some of the reasons that OB/GYN experts recommend that pregnancy moms get the flu vaccine during flu season, usually around October. 

What you can do

Once you receive the good news that you are pregnant, that is a good time to start planning ahead. Talk to your OB/GYN doctor about what risks you should be aware of during pregnancy, including what do to if you get a fever.

When it comes to pregnancy, fevers are dangerous and need to be taken seriously. Most OB/GYN doctors are not concerned about a fever until it exceeds 100 degrees. At that point, the fever needs to be closely monitored and treated, so call your OB/GYN immediately.

The Columbia University researchers who did the autism-fever study also found that mothers who used acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce their fevers lowered the risks that their babies would develop autism. This is useful to know when you get a fever, while you are trying to get in touch with you doctor.

We are here to help

Painter Law Firm’s attorneys have experience in handling all kinds of medical malpractice cases, including serious birth injury and brain injury cases. Call 281-580-8800 for a free consultation about your potential case.

Robert Painter is a medical malpractice lawyer based in Houston, Texas. He represents patients and families who have been seriously injured as a result of medical malpractice, including birth injuries, labor and delivery injuries, anesthesia errors, surgical errors, hospital errors, sepsis, and wrongful death, just to name a few. Robert Painter has past experience as a hospital administrator and used to work at a large defense firm that represented hospitals and doctors. With his experience, training, and know-how, he is not intimidated to sue large hospitals or prominent doctors whose negligence harmed his clients.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.